Performed on the night of the 15th, 16th and 17th of October at the Byre Theatre, Opera Society’s performance of Gluck’s Orphee and Euridice was an evening of class and talent befitting of St Andrew’s atmosphere. By chance, in the recent summer holidays I had the opportunity to see the original French version of this opera, a mammoth performance that stretched over 2 hours and performed entirely in a language I did not understand. In comparison, the Opera Society’s performance felt refreshingly accessible.
Translated by students in Professor Julia Prest’s Translating French Opera module, Orphee and Euridice was sung in modernised English, yet maintaining the original content and classic story of the struggle of Orphee/Orpheus to rescue their lost loved one from Hades. In addition to the English translation, the performance further appealed to contemporary audiences through its modern twist of setting, with both Orphee and Euridice being members of a modern military, and featuring a lesbian couple rather than the male and female one as found in the original myth and opera.
The Opera Society expressed a distinct curiosity for the impact that this adaptation may have on audience perception of the performance. When walking into the theatre, all were handed a sheet by the usher on which to write our impressions, to be handed in at the end of the performance. Specifically, it asked for opinions on the success of the new English translation, as well as our view on the power balance between the two main characters and its relevance to contemporary audiences.
Whilst not full, the theatre was buzzing with energy, boasting an impressive mixture of audience members, including students, couples and older groups. The open, exposed band of St Andrews’ students brought the audience into close proximity with the highs and lows of the music, drawing them further into the emotional turmoil of the play. The first operatic number was a sea of voices that blended together with immense smoothness, even as individual voices took turns being dominant before merging back into the harmony. With the first major piece expressing a piercing and powerful representation of grief, it was impossible not to be captured as the voices of the performers swelled together.
The very simplistic use of props complemented the sung performance by focusing concentration on the beauty of the opera. Coloured lights were effectively used to signal the movement between settings, like when Orphee enters the underworld in search of her lost love, and the use of the chorus’ hands sinisterly reaching out from the side curtains as she wanders the hallowed halls were harrowing. The actress who performed as Cupid stuck out as a highlight of the play, showing off her exceptional talent with an incredible mix of playfulness and seriousness that one would expect of the mythical figure.
The climax of the performance proved a testament to the incredible talent of the two leading actresses playing Orphee and Euridice, whose voices proved absolutely angelic. Orphee, as she struggled not to turn and look at her lover, performed with such realistic and moving facial expressions that her grief was impossible not to feel in your soul, only added to by the impressive use of shadows in Euridice’s death scene that captured Orphee’s suffering in a way that was unbelievably striking.
As audience member Heather commented, the performance was “intense and moving, and I think they did a great job of modernising it to make the story more relatable. All of the leads gave a strong performance and I particularly enjoyed the chorus numbers.” I will be on the lookout for upcoming performances by the Opera Society after such a success.